Moscow or Brussels? Why Armenian PM Pashinyan has been stamped as a pro-Western politician
Accusations of a ‘non-traditional’ political orientation against the leader of the Velvet Revolution Nikol Pashinyan began in April 2018, when it became clear that he and his team were very close to coming to power.
Even in the status of ‘leader of the masses’, before taking office as prime minister, he had already had to make excuses for previous statements and make new ones – about maintaining Armenia’s foreign policy and adherence to integration processes with Russia.
As time passed, Armenia remained loyal to the CSTO military bloc and the EaEU economic union, operating under the leadership of Russia. But Nikol Pashinyan has never managed to shake off the image of a pro-Western politician, whom the Kremlin treats with distrust. Why?
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In parallel with the growth of political weight in the spring of 2018, Pashinyan began to recall his past statements and the foreign policy course outlined during the 2017 parliamentary elections.
And Pashinyan and his Yelk bloc [Exit] had an unambiguous one – Armenia should strive for European integration and exit from the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The parliamentary faction, which included Pashinyan, even initiated in parliament a bill on Armenia’s withdrawal from the EAEU. Of course, it was not accepted, but the “aftertaste” remained.
Already during the street rallies in 2018, the oppositionist renounced his words and stated that Russia will remain the main partner of Yerevan.
Such a drastic change may come as a surprise only for the layman, but not for politicians, says political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan:
“Such anti-Russian sentiments were natural because Pashinyan’s team was in opposition to the authorities. It is no coincidence that after coming to power, all this turned 180 degrees. Because this is not the result of personal conviction, but the function of where you are. Politicians always do that. This is the norm. Pashinyan even repeated this idea – out of naivety or prudence.”
Indeed, after coming to power, he said that his political role had changed, and that now he should be guided not by the political situation, but by the national interests of Armenia.
“In the Russian media for two years, Pashinyan was often presented as a pro-Western idealist. But he proved that he was in fact committed not to some abstract schemes, but to pragmatics. This also applies to relations with Moscow. Pashinyan, who began by criticizing Eurasian integration projects, proved that he would not revise the foundations of the strategic alliance between his country and Russia,” Russian political scientist Sergei Markedonov said.
New leader for the post-Soviet format
After being elected to the post of prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan held his first meetings with the leaders of Russia and the integration structures, whom he had previously opposed. It was noticeable that he felt uncomfortable next to Putin, Lukashenko and Nazarbayev.
“Pashinyan is a representative of the post-Soviet generation in Armenian politics. I remember how in 2018 I watched the first meeting he had with Putin. There were also the heads of Moldova, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. And suddenly it struck me that Pashinyan was the only one there who had learned Russian. For everyone else, Russian had come either from relatives, or was a native language,”says political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan.
However, it was not only language and political experience that made Pashinyan a “black sheep” in this company. The Kremlin is traditionally sensitive to revolutions, be they “velvet” or “orange”. And, of course, Moscow was not delighted with what was happening on the streets of Yerevan in the spring of 2018.
Pashinyan tried to loudly declare at every opportunity that there were no problems between Armenia and Russia. But he did not avoid unpleasant incidents, on the contrary, he himself became their initiator.
Largest misfire: Khachaturov and Kocharyan
One of the incidents in Armenian-Russian relations happened months after the change of power in Armenia. Yerevan decided to withdraw from the post of CSTO Secretary General Yuri Khachaturov and start a trial against him in the March 1 case.
After the presidential elections on February 19, 2008, unrest broke out in the country. Supporters of the first President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who tried to return to politics, argued that it was he who won the election, and demanded the voting results be reconsidered.
On March 1, 2008, during the dispersal of the demonstration, military weapons were used, 10 people were killed.
Yuri Khachaturov then commanded the Yerevan garrison of the Armed Forces and, according to the investigation, directed the dispersal of the demonstrators.
From the wiretapped telephone conversations of the heads of the National Security Service and the Special Investigation Service, it turned out that the Armenian side did not coordinate its steps with Moscow on its intention to replace Khachaturov.
The attitude of Armenia towards the CSTO Secretary General hit the authority of the organization and caused irritation in Moscow.
“What is happening there cannot but worry us, including from the point of view of the tasks of the normal work of those organizations in the CIS, in which Armenia participates,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
By the way, Pashinyan was a member of the campaign headquarters of the presidential candidate Ter-Petrosyan and was one of the leaders of the protest movement. After the tragic events of March 1, the opposition figure went underground for a year and four months due to charges of organizing mass riots. Then he voluntarily appeared in the prosecutor’s office, was arrested and sentenced to seven years.
After 23 months, he fell under an amnesty timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence. The opposition claims that the authorities were forced to take this step under pressure from international structures.
Armenia noticed the special attention of the head of the post-revolutionary government to the “March 1” case.
After all, former Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who does not hide his friendly relations with the Russian President, is also accused in the same case.
The Armenian media wrote that Putin was interested in releasing Kocharyan from arrest, but his requests were not taken into account by the Armenian leadership.
The ex-president is accused of overthrowing the country’s constitutional order. Following the 2008 elections, the CEC declared Serzh Sargsyan the winner, but during the March events he had not yet assumed office, and Robert Kocharian is accused of violently dispersing the demonstration.
The ex-president was arrested in July 2018. Since then, his lawyers have succeeded three times in changing the preventive measure, the last time he was released on $ 4 million bail in June 2020. However, the trial in this case continues.
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After the revolution, law enforcement agencies also became interested in the work of large Russian capital in Armenia. The focus was on the subsidiary of the Russian Railways – South Caucasian Railway, as well as the subsidiary of Gazprom – Gazprom-Armenia.
In the first case, two criminal cases were initiated at once, including under the article abuse of office. And the gas company found itself in the center of a scandal due to large-scale tax evasion. In both cases, the situation was settled – after strict statements from Moscow.
Soros Foundation and Pashinyan’s team
Discontent from the north came mainly not from officials, but from near-Kremlin structures and the media.
The Russian propaganda press criticized Pashinyan for surrounding himself with pro-Western politicians who not only sympathized with the “Western world”, but also received funding from there for many years.
The videos with the participation of the speaker of the parliament, his press secretary and other close associates of Nikol Pashinyan in anti-Russian actions in Yerevan were especially popular.
“Indeed, pro-government commentators, both now and earlier, spoke sharply about Pashinyan, who came to power not in the way that we approve of: on the wave of the color revolution. He was also accused of surrounding himself with people associated with organizations close to George Soros. And this name plays the role of a red rag for a bull in our country, ”confirms Russian political scientist Georgy Bovt.
Yet Pashinyan “remained faithful”
Was there a go-ahead from the Kremlin to criticize Pashinyan? After all, there was no single approach to the Armenian prime minister in the media space, there was both harsh criticism and a loyal attitude.
“If there are discourses that disagree with each other on some issue, when one day on the same channel you can get a very pro-Armenian statement, and on the other – pro-Azerbaijani, if there is a discrepancy, this is an indicator that the Kremlin did not give command.
There are issues on the Russian agenda that are discussed in a unique way. There are some issues that cannot be discussed in any other way on Russian television. When a clear decision is made, then nothing like that happens. If this does not happen, then this is not the voice of the Kremlin, ”political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan believes.
He draws attention to the fact that Nikol Pashinyan remained faithful to the previously chosen path of Armenia on all the main points, and a vivid example of this is the sending of a military contingent to Syria together with the Russian side:
“Nothing terrible has happened from the point of view of Russian interests. Armenia did not withdraw from the CSTO and the EAEU. She has not announced that she wants to join NATO. She did not make harsh anti-Russian statements. “
Nevertheless, some circles in Russia still expect Pashinyan to turn sharply towards Europe at some point.
Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics at the Higher School of Economics Andrei Suzdaltsev is confident that Pashinyan is included in the American scenario for reformatting the country’s public life:
“The American authorities have long been working with the political class of Armenia, with the youth, with the public through both official and non-state structures. Armenia has the largest American embassy in the post-Soviet space – more than a thousand people, it is huge for such a small country ”.
At the same time, the political scientist overlooks the fact that both the embassy and numerous Western NGOs in Armenia worked before Pashinyan.
In the end, Pashinyan remained faithful to the country’s foreign policy course chosen earlier. Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, where people came to power “across the street,” Russia was able to maintain its influence over Armenia.